Power on the ground
Buoyed by the popularity of Erdogan, Turkey's ruling party still has problems in the southeast Kurdish regions as it faces national local elections, reports Gareth Jenkins
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Iraqi President Jalal Talabani (r) with his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul at the Salam Palace in Baghdad
Hundreds of thousands of Turks filled squares of towns and villages across the country on Sunday as competing parties held mass rallies on the last weekend before nationwide local elections on 29 March.
The biggest crowds were in Istanbul, where an estimated 200,000 gathered in the Zeytinburnu neighbourhood to listen to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP). A few kilometres away, in the Caglayan neighbourhood, Deniz Baykal, leader of the main opposition Republican People's Party (RPP) addressed around 100,000 party supporters. Meanwhile, Devlet Bahceli, leader of the Nationalist Action Party (NAP), spoke at a rally of 25,000 supporters in the eastern Mediterranean city of Adana. Other smaller meetings were held throughout the country.
Since the election campaigns began in earnest in January of this year, local issues have hardly been mentioned. Both the JDP and the opposition parties are treating the polls as a referendum on the JDP's national record in office since the last general election in July 2007, when it was returned to power with 46.6 per cent of the national vote.
At first sight, the JDP should be struggling to hold on to its vote. The Turkish economy was already heading into a recession before the global crisis broke in October 2008, since when it has gone into freefall. In the 12 months to the end of January 2009, industrial production contracted by 21.3 per cent. At the end of December 2008, unemployment stood at 13.6 per cent, up from 10.6 per cent in December 2007. All indications are that the figure has continued to rise even further during the first months of 2009.
Yet it is only in the last few weeks that the JDP has even begun to acknowledge the depth of the crisis and introduce measures, such as reductions in value added tax, to try to alleviate its impact. Previously, Erdogan had angrily attacked members of the business community who had called for such measures, accusing them of being politically motivated doom-mongers who were seeking to discredit the JDP by suggesting that a recession could occur while the party was managing the economy.
Erdogan also tried to intimidate newspapers who published details of corruption allegations involving leading members of the JDP, or who questioned the recent dramatic increase in state aid to areas targeted by the JDP in the local elections (including the distribution of dishwashers to villages which have no running water). In February, the JDP-controlled Ministry of Finance slapped Dogan Media Holding, the largest media group in the country and often critical of the government, with an unprecedented $500 million fine for alleged tax irregularities. Even though Dogan Media Holding immediately published documents refuting the accusations, the fine currently still stands.
Yet neither Erdogan's increasing authoritarianism or the increasing economic hardship seems to have damaged his personal popularity amongst the conservative masses that form the JDP's grassroots support. Even though they are the ones who will suffer the most from the JDP's economic downturn, it was striking that nearly all of those who attended the party's rallies across the country were members of the uneducated poor. Turkey's increasingly beleaguered middle classes populated the rallies of the RPP.
"Erdogan is the father of the poor," declared 39-year-old Ayse Guller at a JDP rally in the central Anatolian city of Konya. "Those allegations of corruption have nothing to do with him. It is just people throwing muck at him."
There is no question that Erdogan's often abrasive personality is the key to the JDP's continuing popularity, and his extraordinary outburst at the World Economic Forum summit in Davos in January 2009 -- when he bluntly accused Israeli President Shimon Peres of being a mass murderer -- gave a massive boost to his personal popularity. But there is also little doubt that the ineffectual performances of the opposition parties, particularly Baykal and Bahceli, mean that however much they may be suffering economically under the JDP, few in Turkey have any confidence in any other party to do any better.
"Believe me, every morning when we wake up, I and many others in the JDP pray to God for the health of Mr Baykal, and that he will continue to do politics in exactly the same way as he is now," commented one senior member of the JDP.
With a JDP victory seemingly assured, the only questions are how successful it will be and where. Since the general election of July 2007, Erdogan has repeatedly ordered JDP officials to prioritise seizing control of the main municipalities in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey -- particularly Diyarbakir, the largest city in the region -- from the Kurdish nationalist Democratic Society Party (DSP), which is frequently accused of being close to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
On Saturday, Turkey's Kurds celebrated the Kurdish New Year of Nowruz with mass meetings and celebrations both in the southeast and amongst the Kurdish Diaspora in the major cities of western Turkey. Unlike in previous years, when there were frequently clashes between security forces and supporters of the PKK, this year the celebrations passed without serious incident. Nevertheless, in rallies across the southeast on Sunday, DSP leaders called for the further easing of restrictions on the expression of Kurdish identity and the release of PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan, who has been incarcerated on the prison island of Imrali since February 1999. In its election campaigns, the JDP has tried to appeal to the religious sentiments of what has long been the most conservative region of the country by stressing Muslim solidarity rather than ethnicity. There is still no indication of whether or not the JDP will succeed in winning any of the main municipalities. But, ironically, a JDP victory in southeast Turkey could prove to be a double-edged sword.
"Even if they still face pressure from the security forces and the central government, at least with the DSP in power in the municipalities we felt that we were being represented and that elections meant something," commented one PKK sympathiser who asked not to be named. "I don't believe that the JDP can win in the southeast fairly. And if they do find a way to win, a lot more people will turn their backs on the political process and join the PKK in the mountains."